He’s the hometown candidate, so we all want him to win. And since he leads AL pitchers in many categories, he has a good chance. But the prevailing narrative seems to shove aside CC Sabathia as a Cy Young Award candidate. Justin Verlander currently owns the spotlight to such a degree that he’s gaining traction in the MVP race, one that is typically exclusive to position players. That would appear to preclude all other candidates from the Cy Young talk. But despite the narrative, Verlander isn’t the hands-down best AL pitcher this season.
A quick look at the AL pitcher leader board should dispel any notion that Verlander has broken away from the pack. Sabathia currently owns a better xFIP, FIP, and WAR than Verlander. In fact, he leads the AL in all three. That suggests that he has fared best in terms of the events over which he has the most control. That doesn’t tell the whole story, but it certainly tells a significant part of it.
It’s when we get to the more traditional stats that Verlander takes the lead. He has 21 wins, two more than CC, and 223 innings, 4.2 more than CC. He has more strikeouts and an ERA 0.60 points lower. These are the numbers that play best with the voters. It’s understandable, then, that Verlander commands most of the Cy Young Award consideration. In a world where ERA, pitcher wins, and strikeout totals rule, Verlander is working on a sweep.
There is also the what have you done for me lately factor. Since August 1st Sabathia has a 4.35 ERA, despite pitching into the eighth and allowing just two runs in the first and last starts in that series. Really, it was just a pair of bad starts: a bad inning against Boston and the five solo homers against Tampa Bay. But they still taints his recent numbers. Verlander, on the other hand, has recorded a win in each of his last nine starts. He’s also been on an absolute tear since Tampa Bay lit him up on May 24th; in those 19 starts he has 1.75 ERA.
Instead of kowtowing to the traditional stats and anointing Verlander, let’s take a closer look at the myriad factors that play into a pitcher’s effectiveness. Maybe then we can look beyond the surface of traditional numbers, and even the computations of advanced numbers, and come up with an actual case for the AL Cy Young Award.
Workload: Both Sabathia and Verlander have made 30 starts this year, but Verlander has thrown 4.2 more innings. That’s a relatively insignificant difference, amounting to half an out per start. Sabathia, however, has faced 36 more batters than Verlander. To put that in perspective, Sabathia has recorded one out for every 1.37 batters faced, while Verlander has recorded one for every 1.28 batters faced. So while they bear a similar workload in terms of total outs, and outs per start, Verlander has been a bit more efficient at retiring hitters.
Strikeouts: While CC has already struck out more hitters this year than in either of his previous two seasons with the Yankees, he still falls a bit behind Verlander. In fact, among the qualified AL starters only Michael Pineda and Brandon Morrow have a better strikeout rate than Verlander. Verlander leads the AL in total strikeouts with 224, while Sabathia is second at 211.
Walks: Sabathia is currently working on his best walk rate since 2008, at 2.10 per nine. Yet Verlander is just a hair better, walking just 1.98 per nine. If we take that a step further and do it as a percentage of batters faced, both have walked 5.7 percent of the batters they’ve faced. Since they’re within two walks of each other, this one is pretty much a wash.
Home Runs: This is where Sabathia shines. He has allowed just 15 homers this year, or 0.62 per nine. (This is even more impressive, considering five were solo shots in the same game.) Verlander has allowed 20 home runs this year, good for a 0.81 per nine rate. Verlander does allow a few more fly balls than Sabathia, but a far greater percentage of them are infield fly balls. But in any case, Sabathia does keep the ball on the ground more, which appears to give him some advantage in limiting home runs. Few have done it better this season.
BABIP: DIPS theory says that a pitcher loses control over a play’s outcome once a ball enters the field of play, but that takes the issue a bit too far. Some pitchers are better than others at inducing poor contact. No pitcher, however, can consistently limit opponents to a .238 BABIP, as Verlander has done this season. But that just makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. It’s not necessarily the defense behind him that makes the difference; the Tigers rank 19th in the majors in defensive efficiency, just one spot ahead of the Yankees. Sabathia, on the other hand, has allowed a .310 BABIP, which is a bit higher than his career .290 mark. That could have something to do with his 23.3 percent line drive rate, which is the second highest among active starters. Then again, that could merely be a batted ball classification issue — Alexi Ogando, who has the highest line drive percentage in the league, has a .270 BABIP.
(The point: BABIP is a complicated issue, and it doesn’t come with any stock implications. Please don’t pretend that a high BABIP equals poor luck and a low one equals good luck.)
Clutch Pitching: While the idea of clutch usually doesn’t provide predictive information, it can enhance context when choosing award winners. Verlander has come through big in high-leverage situations, recording a 1.05 FIP against the 47 batters he’s faced in those situations. Sabathia isn’t far behind, with a 1.45 FIP in high leverage situations. Of course, when a starter faces a high leverage situation it’s typically of his own doing. But that doesn’t make the act of wiggling out any less important.
Runs Allowed: As a value measure, ERA falls a bit short. It debits pitchers only for earned runs, and the rules dictating what is an earned and what is an unearned run are convoluted, to be kind. Simple RA isn’t perfect, either, but at least it doesn’t make pointless delineations. To that end, Verlander has a 2.58 RA, while Sabathia is at 3.30. That’s probably the most significant difference we’ve seen between them yet.
Run Support: Old school types love to cite two things when arguing for a pitcher: his wins total, and his ability to pitch situationally. For instance, Buster Olney gave Verlander credit in a previous start where he allowed a bunch of runs, because his offense staked him to a big lead. Using that logic, and the logic behind pitcher wins, run support should absolutely play a role in Cy Young Award consideration. Sabathia has received six runs of support per game, fourth most in the AL, while Verlander has received just 4.7, 24th most. That does make Verlander’s win total seem more impressive.
Quality of Opponents: (At the restest of commenter MattG.) CC Sabathia has faced opponents who have hit .265/.340/.424 on the season. That .754 opponent OPS is the 11th highest mark in the AL among pitchers with 150 or more innings. The hitters who have faced Verlander have a .263/.327/.412 line on the season, which is 31st in the AL. That is, CC has faced tougher opponents than Verlander. (These numbers, to be clear, are the numbers for hitters against all pitchers.)
Given the criteria laid out above, it does appear that Verlander has the more compelling case for the AL Cy Young Award. It’s not a landslide by any means, even if the prevailing media narrative makes it seem so. In fact, Sabathia and Verlander are close enough at this point that September could end up making a huge difference. It will take some significant movement, since the media has apparently already anointed Verlander. But don’t count out CC. He’s just a monster month away from changing everything.